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Rural-Proofing the Planning Process

Another stimulating Rural Housing Scotland conference last week threw up countless options for blogging.

Evidence shows ’rural’ affordable housing investment is tending to end up largely in urban settlements. Are homes built in Inverness, or Ayr, or Dumfries truly rural?

There was much talk of rural housing ‘enablers’. We need more and better support for the Small Communities Housing Trusts and Rural Housing Scotland as catalytic agents, driving the complex process of converting aspiration into buildings on the ground. This often missing link is critical to the evolution of a more rapid delivery of new rural homes.

Could hutting begin to reduce holiday home ownership by providing a cheaper, more fulfilling and sustainable alternative? One Council planner didn’t think so, saying “we don’t support hutting”. That sits uncomfortably with the Scottish Government’s Scottish Planning Policy, which DOES support huts (not to mention their rewriting of the Building regulations to the same end).

We heard that the land reform agenda is offering more rural-focused opportunities for communities, as well as driving more active land management and sustainable development by current landowners.

Meantime, the Islands (Scotland) Bill is steaming ahead, bringing ‘island-proofing’ to the table. Is ‘rural-proofing’ next in line?

My own input was driven by the Planning (Scotland) Bill, which is currently working its way through the system.

Planning CAN be catalytic, transforming the mediocre to the magnificent. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality for many using the system. A quick show of hands suggested perhaps two thirds of the delegates had first hand experience of the planning system. Of these, just one person found the process satisfactory. Why are many potentially beneficial rural development proposals considered guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of the planning system?

The upfront financial risks, complexity and challenges of the planning process are constraining rural and community-led development. Not long ago, planners in one Council told me they rarely refuse planning applications for business development in the countryside. Businesses in the same area told us their enterprising ideas often don’t even make it to the planning application stage because the strict local planning policies put them off.

New housing in the countryside can face an equally troublesome path, particularly in those Council areas where excessively restrictive policy is applied. Bizarrely, the remnants of London’s Green Belt policy, dating back to the 1947 Planning Act, cast a shadow over Scotland’s landscape. An aspiration to avoid coalescence of larger settlements and maintain access to the countryside for recreation, has morphed into a determination to keep the landscape free of development.

Much of the landscape our planning policies strive to protect is deforested and barren, or man-made and managed at industrial scale for agricultural, sheep, deer or grouse. We’re told homes built here might ruin what is too often misunderstood to be natural wilderness. Reliance on car trips will apparently single-handedly render these homes unsustainable.

If urban development had been given the same scrutiny, our towns would never have expanded. For decades, planning policy has sought to contain towns and cities, avoid sprawl, support town centres, reduce private car use and make good places. It has failed. Much of what has been built in the last 40 years has been suburban, low density, car-dependent, out of town-focused and dismissive of community and place-making. In other words, wholly and self-evidently unsustainable.

Too often, the tab for failures arising from this market-led beano has been picked up by the public sector, through town centre regeneration projects, heavily-subsidised public transport starved of passengers, road repairs and the wider social, health and wellbeing impacts described so eloquently by Dr Harry Burns.

We’ve had forty years of development approved in the hope that the private sector might deliver public benefit. Thatcherism began stripping back the public sector and that process continues unabated in the UK. The devolved settlement currently provides only a limited buffer.

The public sector barely builds anything anymore. If it did, I think we’d soon see systems being simplified, as public sector users began to understand more fully the difficulties in getting anything built.

Talk of simplicity resonated at the conference. The Planning Bill opens the door to extended use of Simplified Development Zones, where an approved zoning and land use approach can be taken. This streamlining is targeted at larger scale urban development but it might be shaped to suit rural areas and communities.

On the subject of communities, the Bill introduces the notion of Local Place Plans. The community action plans some places have already adopted could be expanded and embedded in the Council’s statutory Local Development Plan.

As things stand with the emerging Bill, it would theoretically be possible for a community landowner to adopt a Local Place Plan with Simplified Development Zone status. That sounds a lot like devolved democracy. It’s the kind of visionary change many planners say they seek. It’s just a shame that the Bill doesn’t set out to deliver that vision, it’s just a potentially cosmic consequence of other stars aligning.

In reality, planning is generally conservative, lacks influence and has lost the skills it once had in the delivery of development. I began my career working at Livingston, where the public sector was building a new town. I didn’t care much for the results on the ground but the process worked in many ways. Land was purchased at agricultural value, access and services were provided, social housing and other buildings were constructed and serviced land was sold to the private sector at profit. Most of our European neighbours still seem to succeed doing things this way and they are building better places than we are.

We need a new era of public interest-led planning and development. People should play a key role through Local Place Plans, community development trusts and community land and asset ownership. That doesn’t mean we forget about private sector development and asset or land ownership. It just means that public interest needs to be closer to the heart of planning and development.

Where does this leave rural housing? In too many rural areas, we’ve been left with an abundance of poor quality, low-value housing, or large, high-value prime housing and second homes. This two-rung ladder has no chance of spanning the rural housing gulf.

We need a combination of baby steps and giant leaps to deliver change. The Planning Bill will offer numerous opportunities to engage with the emerging legislation. The rural sector needs to take its chance. Don’t wait for a dedicated ‘rural-proofing’ Bill – start influencing now.

A Look At The State We’re In

As a planning student in the early 1980s, I found myself on an EU-funded ERASMUS exchange to Denmark’s second city, Aarhus. It was a formative time. Like many planning students, I had an idealistic desire to make places better but only a vague notion of how it might be done. Travelling round the country and visiting Copenhagen, Oslo and Gothenburg gave me a taste of what might be possible.

Denmark and Scandinavia seemed streets ahead in many ways: outward looking, environmentally aware, socially mature, confident. I was fascinated by co-housing, cycle lanes, triple glazing, coalition and minority government, Christiania, high taxes and much higher wages. (Mind you, they only had one TV channel – we had four.) I lost count of the times someone incredulously asked me ‘Why do they do things that way in your country?’. I realised I had no answers.

Back home, our evocative politics lecturer Phil McGhee was weaving woes of Thatcherism, as it’s policies began to impact upon Scotland’s economy, culture and society (most of us believed there would always be such a thing). The UK was shifting sharply towards personal wealth, market sanctity and trickle-down economics. We were shutting down industry and engineering while the Danes laid the foundations for a world-leading renewable energy sector.

Like many, my fascination with Scandinavia has only grown.

Thirty-five years later, I’m back in Copenhagen, reflecting on different paths. Here, 56% of city residents cycle every day, with 41% commuting by bike. Of course, it’s easier to achieve that with 1000km of dedicated cycleways. The waterfront opens out to walking and cycling routes, play spaces, art, culture, sport, boats, paddle boards and cafes. There are people everywhere, enjoying the outdoors, the clear skies and the chilly air.

The Jan Gehl-inspired public realm, designed for sustainable, healthy living is a key factor in Copenhagen’s deserved reputation as one of the world’s best cities. It’s a symbol of a nation’s personality: the UN’s World Happiness Report placed Denmark top of the league in 2013, 2014 and 2016. As I soak up the hygge in a bar, pondering upon these facts, the lights dim in support of Earth Hour.

Look, Denmark isn’t perfect. No place is perfect. My companion suggests everything’s maybe a bit too well ordered and organised here. Even Christiania now seems almost themed. And politics has turned here as it has elsewhere – laws to seize assets from refugees and delay family reunifications for three years reflect division.

But everything is relative. My personal odyssey began with the ERASMUS trip and it’s sad to imagine the next generation never having that opportunity – UK involvement in the scheme is under threat from Brexit, along with ease of travel to and from places like Copenhagen. Instead of building closer bonds and learning from our neighbours, the UK seems set for a hard farewell, irrespective of more positive views here in Scotland.

If recent Brexit posturing is anything to go by we may become ever more marginalised, striding the sovereign road towards tax haven status: a natural end-point to Thatcherism. Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officer Harry Burns has illustrated the lingering hangover of Thatcherism’s impacts on physical and mental health, wellbeing and social isolation. Is another equally damaging wave heading our way?

The 1980s put the working class in the spotlight. Brexit will shine its beam on the middle classes. The Financial Times reports that between 2007 and 2015, the UK was the only advanced economy in the world where wages fell despite expanding GDP. There’s more on the way. A low wage, low tax economy will not give us the public investment and social conditions that can drive a Scandinavian-style renaissance.

Why is Danish wellbeing so much higher than ours? A new book, ‘Dismembered: How the Attack on the State Harms Us All’ shows the Danish state provides more comfort, being in receipt of 50% of GDP, far exceeding the UK level of 38%, which continues to fall.

Our paths continue to diverge. As Copenhagen racks up investment in its urban realm, we continue to shift towards ‘Ground Control’: pseudo-public space, often of poor quality, with restricted access, owned privately and designed largely to drive consumption. The market doesn’t do public investment unless it’s forced and even then, it typically does it badly.

As a malcontent student, I tended to paint gloomy pictures, just like this one. However, they usually contrasted negatives with positives, as I hope this blog has. The approaching zombie society isn’t inevitable: we only need to look around us to see more animated alternatives. But we do need to choose the right path – and choose it quickly.